Will Phil Mickelson finally win elusive Open?
If you were among the many people following Phil Mickelson on the back nine at Bethpage Black 11 years ago, you probably joined in a chorus of "Happy Birthday." And you possibly heard the man yell, "Hey Phil, we're sick of going 'Oooooooh' " with "Ooooooh" being the reaction of a putt that just missed.
But of course, what makes Mickelson so fascinating at the U.S. Open is that it is oozing with "oooooohs," of close shaves that have made him a runner-up five times and never a champion. That is what will make Sunday so compelling. It is his birthday again, and Father's Day, and he holds a one-shot lead in the final round of the Open, and it is a chance for all of us to see if the day finally will end with him lifting the silver trophy or uttering a sadly golden phrase such as, "I am such an idiot" (Winged Foot, 2006).
It will be the next chapter in the Phil Phenomenon, and it is worth noting that the phenomenon began at Bethpage in 2002. Back then, he was a fine, smiling player who had won a bunch of tournaments, but never a major. Also back then, Tiger Woods was at his peak, and in fact won that week. At every tournament, fans seemed to want to see and root for no one but Woods.
That changed at the Black Course. Long Islanders felt both secure and daring enough to adopt Mickelson. They cheered hard for him, and his persona has never been the same. Even though he has no tangible connection to the Northeast, every tournament in this region is like a home game for him. That has been true this week and will be more true Sunday, when he takes a one-shot lead into the final round of yet another Open.
To be fair, Woods still draws the biggest TV ratings, but Mickelson attracts a different kind of empathy in person. People recognize his place as one of the elite golfers of all time -- a victory Sunday would give him five career major championships, the same as Byron Nelson. They also identify with the attitude that he never lets failure daunt him:
Losing on the final green to Payne Stewart (1999), squandering the momentum from a birdie on a late Sunday at Shinnecock Hills (2004), hitting wildly into a waste basket and then being too aggressive from there at the last hole at Winged Foot (2006), not seizing the momentum of an eagle on 14 in the return to Bethpage, right after a hiatus to be with his wife, Amy, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer (2009).
Mickelson has scar tissue from all of those episodes, but they never have left him sore. So there he was Saturday, smiling and giving a thumbs-up to raucous Philadelphia fans after he birdied No. 17 at Merion Golf Club -- possibly setting him up for another great fall.
"I love being in the thick of it. I've had opportunities in years past and it has been so fun, even though it has been heartbreaking to come so close and let it slide," he said. "I feel better equipped than I have ever felt, heading into the final round of a U.S. Open. My ball striking is better than it has ever been, my putting is better than it has been in years. I feel very comfortable on this golf course. I love it."
He never leaves any doubt that he believes it when he says stuff like that. He also leaves plenty of doubt about what wacky idea he might have next: two drivers in his bag at the Masters, no driver in his bag last week, flying back and forth across the country to his daughter's eighth-grade graduation hours before his U.S. Open tee time. All this peanut stand can think of is what Amy said when Mickelson hit an ill advised but successful shot off the pine straw through the trees on his way to the 2010 Masters win. She insisted that if he didn't try things like that, he wouldn't be Phil.
So we will see Sunday if he gets the trophy, or the medal that goes to the guy who finishes second. He was tied for that spot at Bethpage in 2009 and when there was a question on whether he wanted a share of the medal, he said, "No, I'm good."
He sure is good theater.